Too close to call
Got a question about a product or an account from a big-name online retailer that makes you want to speak directly to their customer service representative? What do you do first? Go to their website, of course. Can’t find a phone number there? Then you may do what seems like the next best thing and just type the company name into a search engine. But the FTC warns consumers that it’s a mistake to assume that all toll-free numbers that pop up in a search are legitimate customer service lines. Some are run by scammers out to hijack your credit card number or install malware on your computer.
We’re used to having easy phone access to major retailers. Scammers know that, too, so they’re gaming the system to mislead consumers. Using company names and URLs that look confusingly similar to national shopping outlets and big box stores, scammers hope that consumers will see the look-alike sites at the top of search engine results and assume they’re legitimate. Once they have you on the line with your defenses down, scammers try to get you to reveal your credit card number. In a variation on recent tech support scams, others claim to spot a security problem on your computer that they’ll fix — for a fee, of course.
Want to stay away from these scams? Here are some tips to help keep you safe.
- On some search engines, the prime real estate at the top or on the side of results pages is for sale. That’s why it’s unwise to assume that phone numbers that appear early in the list are always valid. Scammers may even use a variation on the real company’s name in their web address, which is why the presence of a familiar-sounding URL is no guarantee the phone number and website are genuine.
- The most reliable place to go for information is the URL you know is the company’s official website. However, not every company chooses to have a toll-free customer service number, and even those that do might not highlight it in all caps and bold it across the home page. Look for a “Contact Us” or “How can we help?” link, maybe on the bottom of the page or on a button bar at the top or along the side. This may take some time to navigate, but it will increase the likelihood that you’re going straight to the source.
- Toll-free numbers aren’t the only way companies connect with consumers these days. Some might limit their communication to email. Others offer an online chat function. Some companies direct consumers to enter a phone number with the promise that they’ll get a return call from the next available operator. Times are changing, and these are all now possibilities.
- So what should you do if you spot a fake customer service line? File a complaint with the FTC. Chances are you’re not the only one who is experiencing this. By letting us know, you can help us protect others.
Even if it involves some digging on a company’s website to find reliable contact information, search carefully and you’ll be more likely to stay safe online and strike gold with your search.